The Reverend Kathleen Killian
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Death, Love, and Transformation of Heart
Three things have been foremost on my mind this week: death, love, and transformation of heart. As I was preparing to preach, I could not not read the scriptures in light of the Israeli-Palestine war and mass shooting in Lewiston Maine; scriptures that call God’s people to love and holiness or transformation of heart; news of horrific bloodshed and death, and our utter failure to love; to do justice, show mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).
In our gospel passage from Matthew’s chapter 22, Jesus’s own death by cruxifixction is but days away; and yet, he tells the temple leaders and all generations hence that love is the essence and foundation of faith and life: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. A faithful Jew himself, Jesus quotes both Leviticus (19:18) and Deuteronomy (6:5) and in an answer so watertight that the Pharisees dared not ask him another question.
Our Old Testament lesson finds Israel having already begun their 40 years of wandering through the wilderness. God provides Moses, their leader, with the Ten Commandments and many other instructions or laws as a way for the Israelites to both structure and make sense of their journey of faith and worship, and its intersection with the economic and societal realities of everyday life; all of this, so they may be holy in reflection and mirror of God’s own holiness or wholeness. In the passage from Leviticus, God tells Moses: speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; for I am the Lord.
These words—you shall be holy; you shall love the Lord your God; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself—are at once commands and promises; shall expresses an instruction and confident belief as well as a future tense and intention. The divine promise is embedded in divine commandment, and as such is a profound theological statement about life with God. To keep the command and claim the promise is to be transformed in heart and formed into the people God calls us to be; a people living out our daily lives in genuine love for God and our neighbors; laborers and co-creators in the field of God’s kingdom.
And so all week, I’ve been praying and wrestling with these divine “shalls” that both command and promise holiness and love; for as St. Paul says, now we see in a mirror dimly, now we see but in part (1 Corinthians 13:12). How is it that death happens and the heart breaks and yet we live and love again?
Once when I was a little girl about 3 years old, a friend of mine’s cat had kittens. I remember holding one of the tiny kittens, and being so overwhelmed with love for this little life, that in loving it with the whole strength of my own tiny self, I almost squeezed it to death; probably not really, though I do remember my friends mother rescuing the kitten from my overly eager hands with both urgency and gentleness.
To this day, my love for God and my neighbor is expressed in my love and care for animals. I think loving our neighbor, who is any other living creature, means not only refraining from hurting them but also wanting the other to be safe and working to understand and provide for their needs—with both urgency and with gentleness—like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children (1 Thessalonians 2:7), as Jesus so clearly and continually demonstrated in his own three years of ministry on this earth. Compassionate action reflects and mirrors the Holy One in whose image all of creation is made, all of us God’s children.
I must admit, however, that it’s not always as easy to love my fellow humans; especially those whose lies, greed and lust for power and money tramples any sense of decency; who purposely lead others astray, who hurt, maim, and destroy the lives of their neighbors near and far. But then I have to remind myself that they too are children of the Creator, and God loves them as much as me. Perhaps my willingness to admit this—to actually believe it—is the best and only way I can “love” these neighbors for now.
If we want to love God and our neighbors, and I must add importantly ourselves, we simply must start and continue, and like anything else, learn little by little, step by step, breath by breath. We learn to love by practice. As it’s said, practice makes perfect; if we practice deceit, we’ll get pretty good at lying and fooling ourselves. If we practice love, the hardened soil of our hearts will begin to transform into a soft-meadowed plain where justice, mercy, and humility flower into hearts that respect human dignity and choose life rather than death; for love is the presence of the Holy One.
I was struck by the testimony of an elderly man in The New York Times, whose son was shot to death in the mass shooting in Lewiston. Deeply saddened, he also said he was not angry at the person because he was sick in the mind. There’s so much hatred in the world, he said, it’s a sickness
As disciples of Jesus, our willingness to choose forgiveness over hatred, and to make meaning of our suffering in light of the life, death and resurrection of Christ is perhaps our most essential practice. Our devoted time and attention is required, as is our patience and perseverance as we wander through the wilderness of our own failings and fallings.
And then there is grace; a peace not of this world; peace that surpasses all understanding. Are we open to receive it? Will I allow the peace of Christ to overcome my fears and anxieties? The peace that surpasses all understanding is always a gift; whereas the peace of the world is always brokered and hangs in a balance of political power—not a bad thing per se—though peace of the world is inevitably limited and temporary.
As we sang in our gradual hymn: Let Christ endue our will with grace to fortify. Then justly, in mercy we’ll humbly walk with God. The gift of peace in Christ guards our hearts and minds no matter our circumstances. When I don’t see a solution in sight for myself or others, I pray for the grace of the peace that surpasses all understanding and is not of this world and bears all things.
We know that our world and all life on earth must come to an end. Yet death most always seems an unexpected end. I have long held a deep solace that there are angels whose only and particular mission is to be sent by God to those whose death is sudden, and violent, as it has been for so many souls these past weeks. These souls need special care in transitioning from their sudden and brutal death into the love that never ends (1 Corinthians 13:8). As they and we are forever part of God’s infinite love, which I imagine to be a great freedom of spirit and joy, so too transformation of heart never ends.
Peace must begin begin here in the heart—in me, in you—and in the hearts of world leaders and decision makers. To be a disciple of Christ is to walk in peace with Jesus all the way through the everything of our lives through death, and into God’s great freedom of abiding love. Jesus calls us to follow him, though he never demands that we do, or even that we love and worship him. Rather, he tells us to love the Lord our God and our neighbor with the whole strength of our being.
As the church, our worship and time spent together is meant to help us realize the interconnectedness and unity of this love, and that our life in Christ is formed and sustained in deep relationship with God and our neighbor.
In the words of priest and poet John Donne (1572-1631)
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
. . . any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
As we prayed first thing this morning, almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command.